The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – What’s in a Name? 

By Bob Lorentson

Studies have shown that the average person has around 6,000 thoughts per day, and that 95 percent of them are about themselves.  Almost none of them are about garbage.  OK, I made that last part up.  But if you only had 300 thoughts a day to work with, would you think about garbage?  I myself only think about it when I am reminded to by my wife, or if she’s away, flies.  So it’s a good bet that no one is thinking much of anything about even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, let alone any of the more run-of-the-mill garbage patches of the world. 

            But now that you’ve stopped obsessing about yourself, I’ll bet you’re thinking, What makes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch so great?  And I have to admit that while it is nothing like those other great world monuments, the Great Wall of China and the Great Barrier Reef, neither is it a fading relic of a time or environment gone by.  Before we throw out the name along with everything else we throw out, however, let’s think about some possible reasons for its greatness. 

1) It’s big!  At 618,000 square miles, there’s plenty of room in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for everyone’s garbage.  Scientists say that it’s twice the size of Texas!  While Texas is an appropriate measure when comparing garbage patches, a better measure might be to say that it is about the size of our indifference, which, let’s face it, is pretty great.  And it’s only getting bigger!  Scientists say that it’s showing a 2.5 percent growth rate, which makes it a better investment than recycling!  It has, in fact, grown to become a new type of monument, the biggest we’ve yet created to our modern throw-away society.  (And if you visit, the great thing is you can forget that ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ rule and leave whatever you like.) 

            From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has grown to become the world leader in garbage patches.  To understand how it grew so big, let’s take a glimpse into the life cycle of plastic, its primary component.  Following manufacture, ninety percent of all plastic items are used once and tossed out, victims of their cheap and easy availability.  While about nine percent of it is recycled, eleven percent escapes into aquatic environments, where it can then find its way via ocean currents to the nearest garbage patch. There it can live out its years in the company of other plastic bottles, bags, fishing nets, and enough miscellaneous plastic debris to choke a sea turtle.  Or thousands of turtles, fish, whales, dolphins, …  It’s not pretty, but then – 

            2) We don’t have to see it!  Located between California and Hawaii, and 1,000 miles from land, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was only discovered in 1997 by an oceanographer who knew what the ocean was supposed to look like.  Throwing out his concerns, however, was as easy as throwing out a plastic bottle.  Which leaves me wondering if any enterprising alien reconnaissance crews could also have discovered it, and are currently assessing our willingness to trade our ancestral planet for cheap trinkets, or to turn it into an inter-galactic dump. 

            While it’s true that many sea creatures do have to see it, swim through it, live in it, or get entangled and die in it, we generally don’t have to see them either, until they end up on our plates.  Which is apparently what worries the scientists who say that all that plastic eventually degrades into tiny micro particles that permeate the oceans from top to bottom and pole to pole, whereupon it then enters the food chain and ends up on our plates also.  I’ll believe it when I see it. 

            3) It’s free!  Normally a monument of this size and complexity would be ridiculously expensive, and come with intense wrangling over who was going to pay for it, and how.  Scientists say that if we’d only listen to them, we’d know that we’re all going to pay for it if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing.  That’s one reason why nobody listens to scientists.  Another is because anyone can see that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch built itself, and it didn’t cost us a penny.  We just did what we always do, look the other way, and Voila!  Who knows what other big surprises we could have in store for us by looking the other way? 

            4) It’s creating a new environment!  Bold coastal creatures like crabs, anemones, and many others that would ordinarily never get the chance to experience more of the world are now turning their backs on the coast and thriving on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  These new floating plastic waste ecosystems have even been given a name – the Plastisphere.  Who knew that creating new environments could be so easy?  Only time will tell if evolving in a plastic environment is the way of the future, or the end of the future, but if we’ve learned anything about ourselves, it’s that we can waste time too.  

            Ok, so maybe we need to either raise our standard of greatness, or lower our standard of living.  It’s something to think about anyway.  

(Bob Lorentson is a local writer and retired environmental scientist. His latest book is YOU ONLY GO EXTINCT ONCE (Stuck in the Anthropocene with the Pleistocene Blues Again).